writers on dancing



Season of Migration
Classical Music and Dance from Cambodia
Joyce Theater
New York, NY
April 21, 2005

by Leigh Witchel
copyright ©2005 by Leigh Witchel

There isn’t much point in comparing Odissi dance from India to Cambodian dance but it is interesting to compare the two productions produced directly after another at the Joyce Theater, and how they transpose an Eastern idea of dance into a Western venue. The Nrityagram ensemble took classical Indian dance and presented it as a theatrical experience. The dancers and musicians from the Royal University of Fine Arts in the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh presented their dance and music as an ethnological experience.

Like most of Cambodian culture, classical dance and music were in grave danger because of decades of war. The company’s director, Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, began her training when the university in Phnom Penh reopened in 1981. As many as nine out of ten of the previous masters of dance were either dead or overseas and the thread to the past had been nearly cut. Shapiro’s noble work, along with the rest of the country, has been to reconstruct and retrieve their heritage.

The company presented two dances, “Ream Eyso & Moni Mekhala” (The God of Thunder and the Goddess of Lightning) and “Seasons of Migration”. The first piece is centuries old, the second a new work by Shapiro, but one would not be able to tell that simply from looking. Shapiro is working in a traditional vein and the pieces look cut from the same cloth. Both works are allegorical, “Ream Eyso” describes the origin of rain, lightning and thunder, “Seasons of Migration” the adventure of deities as they arrive on Earth.

Cambodian classical dance seems more concerned with pictorial beauty than with movement. The dances were more like masques; the pieces we saw here had no fast motion, only slow walking motion and dreamlike poses that depicted a stylized version of a myth. All the roles, male and female, are played by women; the singers are women and the musicians are men. There are a few soloist roles; the corps worked in unison, either as women or en travesti. Hyperextension of the joints played a large part in the poses, that of the elbow, fingers and particularly of the wrists, to create exaggerated curves and angles to the arms. The training also emphasizes a deep plié with the weight on the heels so that the toes are free of the floor.

All non-Western dance has to be adapted in a Western viewing experience; we watch in a theater, silently. It’s a different way of experiencing a spectacle. But even with the inevitable adjustments, the Cambodian dance seems close to the experience we might get in Cambodia, and in some ways this conspires against it. The even-toned pageantry of the dance translates to a lack of theater; it’s beautiful to watch and interesting in its unfamiliarity. The (uncredited) costumes are also stunning, but little happens by Western standards that would make you sit and stare at a stage for ninety minutes.

In her program notes Shapiro expresses interest in creating new works of classical Cambodian dance, and that’s wonderful. Reclaiming an art form from near extinction is a major achievement, and it’s worth going to see the dance just to become acquainted with classical Cambodian dance and music. It isn’t necessary for the greatness of Cambodian dance, but I look forward to the day that it produces someone like Nrityagram’s Surupa Sen, who can re-imagine the form for Western audiences.

Volume 3, No. 16
April 18, 2005

copyright ©2005 Leigh Witchel



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last updated on April 25, 2005